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Accessing theme parks for those with disabilities
|Tony Phoenix and Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, editors|
by Tony Phoenix, staff writer
When my parents moved to Europe a few years ago, the first thing my wife, Adrienne, and I wondered was, "How could we take advantage of this to go to Disneyland Paris?" Fortunately, it was also one of the first things on my dad's mind. It took a few years to finally make it happen, but Adrienne and I finally found ourselves winging over the Atlantic last month.
Europe is not known for being especially accessible to visitors with disabilities. Cobblestones, centuries-old buildings, streets built for horses and buggies, and a subway system that has taken its share of war damage all contribute to the problem. Built just nine years ago however, Disneyland Paris does not have this excuse.
If you wonder why the Americans with Disabilities Act was necessary, Disneyland Paris is a marvelous case study. Parts of the park are fully accessible, even by current U.S. standards. Parts of the park could be more accessible, which is certainly not unique to Disneyland Paris (DLP). Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World could make great improvements themselves. The biggest difference we encountered was the attitude about accessibility. Disabled Americans have spent the last decade experiencing accessibility as a right. In Paris, you soon realize that many people consider accessibility a privilege, and one sometimes given grudgingly.
Getting there is half the fun!
Many guests use either the RER or the Metro to travel to DLP. Train travel is often problematic for visitors using wheelchairs, or for those with other mobility impairments. The Disneyland Paris / Marne le Valle station is equipped with several elevators, so you should not find yourself stranded on the lower platform. This was not the case everywhere we went. The elevator at the metro stop for our hotel was broken two of the three days we were there. While you occasionally see a sign warning you of a broken elevator, don't depend on it. If you absolutely cannot use stairs for whatever reason, make arrangements to travel via bus or car, or stay on-property.
If you drive to Disneyland Paris, you encounter the first of several frustrations. The park's Guidebook for Guests with Disabilities states that all parking lots have reserved parking spaces for guests with mobility impairments, but we found this to be inaccurate. As promised, there is a special parking lot just for hotel guests with disabilities, located just to the right of the main gate of the park like the guidebook claims. Notice, however, that I said hotel guests. When we got to the toll-booth, we were informed that we needed a special permit from the hotel to park there. If you are not staying on property, you are directed to park in the main lot, where there are no designated disabled parking places.
If you have a side-loading wheelchair ramp on your vehicle, make sure to notify the parking attendant that the space next to you must be left vacant, or ask for the end space of an aisle.
To get to the park itself from the main parking lot, you can either walk along the path, or use the moving walkways.
Staying there - resort hotel information
Six of the on-property hotels have wheelchair-accessible rooms that may also be reserved by guests with other mobility impairments. These rooms have larger bathrooms with grab-rails and raised toilets, a double bed and accessible windows / balconies. These hotels are:
If you stay in a resort hotel, you may use the hotel transportation system to get to and from the park. Not all of these buses accommodate wheelchairs, which is why there is a hotel guest parking lot near the park. You can request an accessible bus, or you can also choose to walk to the park from your hotel. If you do stay on property, and want to avoid transportation problems, we suggest staying at the Disneyland Hotel, right outside the main gate. All of the other on-property hotels are quite a hike, all the way through Disney Village and beyond.
In all cases, guests with disabilities should alert the front desk of their particular disability. Your room may not have bed shakers or flashing lights to alert guests with hearing impairments of emergency alarms.
Getting around, and avoiding the run-around
Disabled visitors to the U.S. parks are familiar with Special Assistance Passes (SAPs). Disneyland Paris uses the same system. Stop by City Hall as you enter the park to request a pass. It is valid for up to four people per party, and has the same rules and restrictions found in the U.S. parks. While at City Hall, pick up the Guidebook for Guests with Disabilities. Available in several languages, it saves you lots of time and frustration.
DLP has an improved SAP system for Annual Passholders over Disneyland in Anaheim. After ending up with a collection of over 50 SAPs at Disneyland, I wondered why Disneyland would not offer a permanent SAP. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that DLP does. When you purchase your Annual Pass, they can add a wheelchair symbol to your pass. This acts as your permanent SAP, and saves you a trip to City Hall each visit. Now if we could just get Disneyland and WDW to do the same thing!
Annual Passholders also benefit from free stroller and wheelchair rentals. For logistical reasons, we chose to leave my wheelchair at home and rent one at the park. While the convenience of free rentals is nice, I would never use the park wheelchairs again. The rental chairs were heavy, awkward, and the most uncomfortable I have ever had the misfortune to experience. DLP does not rent any form of motorized wheelchair or ECV, so be prepared to push all day. For our next visit, we plan to either lug my chair along, or look into renting a chair from a local agency.
With the exception of one restroom at Walt's restaurant, all are wheelchair accessible. There are even a handful of "family" restrooms scattered throughout the park. There are three First Aid centers in the resort: Disneyland, Disney Village, and Hotel Cheyenne.
The guidebook claims that all stores are wheelchair accessible, but this is semi-accurate. You can get into every store, but the smaller store sizes and even smaller aisles make it difficult to navigate through some of them. If you plan to shop, do so first thing in the morning, as Disneyland Paris stores get extremely crowded at night. Two stores even have wheelchair accessible fitting rooms, which is quite handy.
It is easy for Americans to forget just how much smoking has disappeared from public areas in the States. Those of us from California have been even more sheltered. Europe provides a reminder of just how prevalent it was. We had a running joke that French kids trade their pacifiers for a cigarette at age 7. Unfortunately, that isn't much of a joke for people with a sensitivity to smoke.
Highlights they got a lot right
Some attractions have special boarding areas for disabled guests. A great example is Le Pays des Contes de Fees, or Storybook Land. This ride offers a special boarding location, similar to DCA's Grizzly River Run. The boat is stopped at a side loading area, allowing disabled guests and companions plenty of time to load and unload. As they say in England, "mind the gap" -- there is a span of a few inches between the boat and the dock.
Like its U.S. counterparts, the DLP "it's a small world" has a wheelchair-accessible boat. Let the cast member know that you prefer to stay in your wheelchair, so they can bring the boat around for you. The nearby Alice's Curious Labyrinth has a marked wheelchair path, allowing you to see everything this hedge maze has to offer. You can't to reach the top of the castle, but you can visit the lower floor.
Le Visionarium (aka Timekeeper in Orlando) offers a closed-captioned preshow and reserved seating for guests with disabilities. If you are prone to balance problems or vertigo, we highly suggest that you take advantage of the seats offered at the front of the theater. The grab rails are nice, but there are times when you may want as much of your body anchored as possible. We were quite pleased to find that Les Mysteres du Nautilus is wonderfully wheelchair accessible, built with an elevator and sufficiently wide passageways to allow easy navigation.
The Disneyland Railroad platforms are wheelchair accessible, including the Main Street station, which has an elevator. Unlike Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the trains themselves cannot accommodate wheelchairs. If you can fold your chair, you may bring it along with you an disembark at any station. If you can not fold your chair, it will remain at the station, allowing you to enjoy a round-trip journey.
Both the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Molly Brown are wheelchair accessible, and provide great views of Frontierland. If you are truly adventurous, much of Adventure Isle can be navigated by a brave guest using a wheelchair. I hope you enjoy off-roading!
Tips for the hearing impaired
We were amused to see that the guidebook warns guests with hearing impairments to bring a friend on some rides, because they include "some very dimly lit area which you may find unsettling". We think this is a typo, intended for those with visual impairments.
Many of the shows and attractions at DLP are non-verbal, which is a boon for guests with hearing impairments. Rather than making the difficult decision between French or English narrations, there simply isn't any spoken dialog. The Mulan show has no spoken narration at all, though music from the movie is used for dramatic effect. The DLP version of Storybook Land uses giant storybooks, written in both English and French, in place of live narration. Unlike the U.S. parks, there are no written show narratives available for those attractions that do include spoken dialog.
You can arrange for a guided tour of the park in either French or American Sign Language if you are traveling with a group and request the service at least a month in advance.
The Gaumont Cinema has an assisted listening system available in five of the theaters. Headphones at Le Visionarium allow you to listen to the show in a variety of languages.
Tips for Guests with Visual Impairments
You can loan out a Braille guidebook City Hall by leaving a deposit or an ID card. The book gives you a general orientation of the park in English or French, as well as brief descriptions of some attractions. Braille menus are only available at Planet Hollywood in Disney Village.
Be prepared to be told that you must ride with a sighted companion to experience some attractions. This list includes all of the roller coasters, Autopia, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Guide dogs are the only service animals permitted in DLP. The guidebook details the attractions that your guide dog can experience with you. At all other attractions, your guide dog must be left with another member of your party while you ride.
Missed Opportunities parlez-vous "accessible?"
For a park only 9 years old and built from the ground up, there are no excuses for those accessibility problems that we encountered. Strangely enough, the problems we encountered were more because of cast member attitudes, rather than being structural in nature.
In general, because very few attraction lines are accessible to wheelchairs, you must go through special entrances or the exit. Why is this a problem? Doesn't this mean you get to skip the line? Well, yes, it usually does, but this is not always a benefit. Disney rides are told as stories, beginning the moment you get in line, and ending with the ride experience itself. Bypassing the queue on some rides such as Space Mountain and the Phantom Manor also means missing the beginning of the story. Trust me; the Phantom Manor queue once you enter the house, is so beautiful that you do not want to miss it, even to save a half hour in line. The issue we have is that the queues could have easily been made accessible, allowing every guest to experience the full attraction.
The guidebook states that there are designated seating areas for shows and parades, but we were unable to locate them along the parade route or inside Videopolis. The guidebook also suggests arriving well before show time to secure a seat, which is good advice at any park. If you are unable to stand during a parade, there are benches at Le Theatre du Chateau where you can sit to watch the parade pass.
The most noticeable and unpleasant difference between the U.S. parks and DLP is that DLP cast members can refuse to allow you to board a ride at their discretion. That is, an 18-year-old with no experience living with your disability can tell you that you are not able, or even allowed, to ride a certain attraction.
We discovered this at Space Mountain, where a cast member arbitrarily decided that I needed to prove that I could walk unassisted across the loading platform, prior to allowing me to board the ride. Presumably, this was to ensure that I could evacuate the ride during a breakdown, but it seemed entirely capricious to me. And he meant completely unassisted: I was required to leave even my cane with my wheelchair and walk about 20 feet. As I was only a few feet from the edge of the platform at the time, I can't even imagine what would have happened had I lost my balance and fallen into the track while attempting this stunt. Fortunately, I was deemed "fit" enough to ride and was allowed to board.
When we returned, our rocket was sent to the wrong loading platform, which meant I got to walk down one exit ramp and back up another to gather my wheelchair and belongings.
Another similar situation occurred while trying to reach the Indiana Jones attraction. The ride was actually designed with a wheelchair entrance, through a gate that leads directly onto the unloading platform. This is a similar system to that used in many other rides throughout the park, including Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain.
Either we encountered a pair of cast members having a bad day, or the purpose of that gate has totally escaped the powers that be. Either way, we were not permitted to use that gate. Instead, we were directed to climb a flight of stairs, walk across a bridge over the tracks, and then descend to the loading area. Again, this was explained as a way to ensure that I could evacuate the ride if necessary. No amount of discussion, in either French or English, could convince the two cast members that the gate with the wheelchair painted on it was probably the intended entrance. They simply didn't care: either climb the stairs, or don't ride.
Guests with visual impairments are actually required to bring a companion with them on some attractions. This isn't a suggestion; it's a rule. This would not usually be a problem, as most guests travel in groups, but can you imagine being told you can't ride something alone because you are blind? Or that you have to be able to climb stairs to ride a roller coaster? Disneyland Paris can get away with these things because there is no ADA to prevent it. Your best bet when dealing with absurd rules is to either adopt the "when in Rome" attitude, or try to discuss your concerns with City Hall. The teenager at the attraction may not have the authority or desire to question the system.
Guests with visual and hearing impairments may find that the park falls sadly short of the ideal. Hiring cast members who are fluent in major dialects of sign language is difficult, but not entirely impossible for a resort with over 500 cast members. In lieu of this, the park could develop written narration scripts. Such scripts are easy to produce, and provide a richer experience for guests.
Along the same lines, Braille menus and more detailed attraction descriptions are not at all difficult to produce, and should be offered extensively throughout the resort.
Having visited every Disney park but Tokyo, I really think Paris leads them all as the premier park for beauty, theming, and storytelling. Every land immerses you into the story the Imagineers want to tell.
It's apparent that the park was designed with the intention of making it accessible to all guests. The level of accessibility is higher than that found at the earlier parks, at least for guests with mobility impairments. It just seems that something got lost in the translation, somewhere between design and implementation. Why else would a ride be designed with a wheelchair gate right onto the loading platform, then be entirely ignored in favor of a flight of stairs? The designers tried to get it right, but the current management doesn't get it.
Disneyland Paris is a beautiful park that was truly built according to Walt's dream. We loved it, and we plan to return soon, if possible! The visit is worth it for all guests. Just be prepared for the inevitable challenges you will face.
Not sure about taking the big plunge to fly across the Atlantic? Visit the following Web sites for information on traveling with disabilities:
Adrienne and Tony developed the concept for the Theme-Park Access Guide after several long discussions with friends about disabled access issues at Disneyland. We all felt that communication needed to be improved for guests with disabilities.
Tony was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis several years ago. We have seen the parks in almost every imaginable way: walking with no aids, a cane, crutches, and a wheelchair. We have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, and everything in between. It is our hope that this guide helps you make the most out of your visit to California or Florida.
Disney parks usually do many things right in providing access to guests with disabilities; however, they still have a long way to go in making the parks truly accessible for everyone. We have detailed some of the more egregious problems in the Horror Stories/Hall of Shame section of this site.
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